WaterShed - The New Winning Formula

Watershed won the highly competitive U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 by beating universities from around the world.

May 30, 2013

As sunlight rose across the Potomac River on September 23rd 2011, it did not trace the typical blades of grass and ball fields in west Potomac park as it did seven days earlier. Instead, the sun beamed brightly upon the future of residential housing: nineteen fully functioning, sustainable houses designed and built by college students. That week the University of Maryland’s innovative house watershed won the highly competitive U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 by beating universities from around the world. Teams traveled from China, Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, and all parts of the U.S.

Each of the 20 finalists took nearly two years to conceptualize, design, construct, deconstruct, transport, and reconstruct their houses for the ten-day, non-stop competition in Washington, DC.  The Decathlon required each team to maintain a precise comfort level within the house, deliver hot water from the kitchen sink and shower, operate full-size appliances, entertain competing teams with dinner and a movie, and produce at least as much electricity with its solar panels as was consumed in the house. In addition, contestants were judged on architecture, market appeal, engineering systems, communications and affordability. More than 350,000 people visited the Decathlon, while 21,000 of them checked out Maryland’s WaterShed. Maryland entered hoping they could top their 2nd Place finish in 2007. Participating for the fourth time in the competition, Marylanders were the most experienced team.


Before the design could begin, the team had to decide what the best “message” would be and the best way to present it to the public. With deep-felt concern about the health of the local ecological treasure–the Chesapeake Bay–and the rising awareness of global water problems, the message was clear–focus on water.  The team ran with this idea, designed the house to use minimal amounts of water and electricity, and named it WaterShed.

A major aim was to minimize heat gain from the intense summer sun. Green walls, or vertical gardens, were added to the west side of the house to shade the kitchen and breakfast patio in order to keep them cool, attractive, and at the same time capable of producing food. The angle of the roof was inverted like butterfly wings to bring rainwater to a central axis of the house, where it could be used to support life in the ponds, rain gardens, and wetlands surrounding the house. It also allowed rainwater to be stored and used to irrigate the vegetable garden. The bathroom was located along this central water axis to create the illusion that water was flowing under the house.


The wetland plants used in WaterShed were all native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed so that it closely mimicked the natural process of filtration. A green roof was installed to reduce the flow of storm runoff, slow down the unnecessary absorption of solar energy into the house and decrease the heating of the air surrounding the house. As all of these components came together over the construction period, the concepts and plans slowly started to materialize. “Looking back on old construction photographs and realizing how much progress we have made from week to week was immensely rewarding,” says Veronika Zhiteneva, an ENST undergraduate student.  WaterShed mimics the cyclic nature of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, showing the public how the integration of these systems can improve efficiency and reduce the amount of resources needed. Students did not limit their outreach to Decathlon visitors, as Isabel Enerson describes, “through outreach efforts I have been able to engage to a higher degree with local schools in the surrounding community, the University, and various forums.”

This project has offered abundant learning opportunities for students across campus. “We were able to incorporate material that we were learning in class into an integrated physical application that was built and shown to the world as a finished working product,” says Scott Tjaden, ENST undergraduate student. “With WaterShed winning this year’s Solar Decathlon, I and every other student working on the project gained knowledge and experience we will use in future careers. It gave us memories we will never forget.”